June 26, 2019

There Are Some Troubling Things In His History

At a press conference prior to Columbus Day celebrations in New York, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio offered these reflections of Christopher Columbus:

The historical figure of Columbus is complicated to say the least…One thing, he went to work for Spain, I don’t know how I feel about that, as an Italian-American. It’s very complicated. There are some troubling things in his history.

In an article written for the Guardian some years ago (Lost Document Reveals Columbus as Tyrant of the Carribean, 6 August 2006), author Giles Tremlett wrote that “Christopher Columbus, the man credited with discovering the Americas, was a greedy and vindictive tyrant who saved some of his most violent punishments for his own followers, according to a document uncovered by Spanish historians.” In the article, Spanish historian Consuelo Varela reflects upon the contents of this 48-page document that details the ways in which Columbus’ seven year reign of the colony was both “horrifying and hard.” While noting that many atrocities had been committed, Ms. Varela relays this story:

One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.” Continuing, Ms. Varela noted that “Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out” and that “Christopher congratulated him for defending the family.”

As with much of history, however, opposing views often collide. In an October 8, 2012 article written by Donald R. McClarey (Columbus, Catholicism, and Courage; The American Catholic), McClarey offers his own analysis:

I believe that there are two keys to understanding Columbus: his Catholic faith and his courage. Columbus lived in a religious age, but even in his time he was noted for the fervor of his faith. Masses, penances, pilgrimages, retreats, the reading of the Bible, all the aspects of devotion that the Catholic faith offered, Columbus engaged in all of his life. Any ship he commanded was scrupulous in religious observances, with the Salve Regina being chanted by the crew each evening at Vespers. As his son Ferdinand noted: “He was so strict in matters of religion that for fasting and saying prayers he might have been taken for a member of a religious order.”

Later, McClarey offers this passage from Columbus’ personal journal as he reflected upon his journey to the New World:

Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone…

With regard to these differing perspectives of Christopher Columbus, my suspicion is that they shall forever remain and be debated by historians.

But what of today? While seemingly comfortable in debating past atrocities, do we consider ourselves incapable of committing them today? According to FBI Statistics for 2012, did you know that in the United States alone…

  • A violent crime occurred every 26 seconds
  • One murder occurred every 35.4 minutes
  • One forcible rape occurred every 6.2 minutes
  • One robbery occurred every 1.5 minutes
  • One aggravated assault occurred every 41.5 seconds

If one adds to these atrocities the approximate 1.2 million unborn children that were murdered by abortionists, a forcible argument may be made that the United States has become one of the most violent societies in the history of the world.

Given all of this, what will historians say about us hundreds of years from now? Sadly, what do we say (or not say) about this today? In our appeal to wisdom, what may be said?

While it may be helpful to debate history, perhaps we needn’t look too far beyond our own noses.

Or, to slightly alter Mr. de Blasio’s quote:

There are some troubling things in OUR history.

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Written by
Deacon Kurt Godfryd

REVEREND MR. KURT GODFRYD is editor of Catholic Journal and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Married and the father of five children, Deacon Kurt was ordained to the diaconate on October 4, 2008 by His Eminence Adam Cardinal Maida and is assigned to St. Clement of Rome parish in Romeo, Michigan. A native Detroiter, he was educated at the Jesuit-run University of Detroit Mercy, where he received a B.S. in finance, M.B.A., and M.A. in economics. His theological training was taken at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where he earned an M.A. in pastoral ministry.

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Written by Deacon Kurt Godfryd